Column: Trinity Site Construction Issues

Thick mud flows onto Miller’s Knecht Automotive/NAPA Autoparts property at 201 Knecht St. in November. Courtesy/Clint Miller

Trinity Site Construction Issues

Los Alamos Daily Post

A few weeks back, I was contacted by Sam Gardner, a local developer, about problems at the Trinity Site Smith’s Marketplace development. The issues involved alleged bad treatment of a couple of local businesses, slack enforcement of county construction policies and rude behavior toward a citizen who had a badly cracked car window from a construction truck near the site.

I decided to take a look into the issues. Here is what I learned.

A Muddy Mess

Clint Miller owns and manages the Knecht Automotive/Los Alamos NAPA business at the end of Knecht Street. Miller has faced mud freely flowing from the Trinity Site Development onto his fenced lot and customer parking areas. Miller reports his security fence was torn down with barely any notice. Miller says his gas and electric services were cut periodically, making doing business impossible for multiple days. MIller also noted that cars in his parking lot that belong to customers were moved by construction crews without giving Miller any notice and a new asphalt parking surface was torn up.

Miller spoke to me about the day his security fence was torn down. Before the fence was torn down, Miller says he contacted the County. Miller reports that County Administrator Harry Burgess came to the scene. A recent survey showed the fence was actually on Trinity Site land. Miller reported that he wasn’t given an adequate amount of time to install a replacement fence on his property.

“The fence had been that way for years, from the time of the County quonset huts,” Miller said. “I bought the property that way.”

A construction crew, from R&O Construction of Ogden, Utah was at the fence ready to tear it down. Miller reported that Burgess asked the Trinity construction superintendent not to tear down the fence at that time so Miller could first secure his property. “[The Construction Superintendent] of R&O Construction told Harry, ‘watch me’ and went ahead and had the fence demolished,” Miller said.

Miller has since built a new security fence on his property to protect his customers’ cars. Miller says the new fence cost him $12,000.

Burgess, when contacted about this incident sent me the following comment in an email, “To the best of my recollection (it’s been a while and wasn’t anything formal), I first learned of this event when Clint Miller contacted me. I went to his location the next day and I can’t remember if the fence was already removed. The fence was on Trinity Site property and they (R&O) indicated the need to remove it in order to install certain utilities, which I remember as being already trenched by that time. I did discuss with Mr. Miller what might be necessary to protect his concerns, and he asked for a temporary fence to be erected in order to provide him time to secure a contractor to construct one on his property. I relayed that request to R&O/Smith’s and they agreed to provide such a fence for 90 days. Beyond that, I can’t verify any discussions between the two entities (I never witnessed any) and I don’t know if the fence was erected or how long it remained.”

Miller resurfaced and sealed his business entrance/parking lot recently at a cost of more than $10,000. The lot includes a County easement and the R&O construction crew placed a busy construction truck entrance off Miller’s property. Miller’s parking area and entrance had been trenched for sewer and water pipes needed for Trinity Site development.

Large construction trucks have been rolling through Miller’s property easement and parking area. Miller said they are a hazard to his customers and employees and have been dropping a lot of mud and debris in front of his business.

“Why do they have to use this entrance on my property for these long construction trucks? They have many other entrances they can use,” Miller said.

Miller reported the construction site should have had a “truck-out device” at this entrance. A truck-out device is similar to a cattle guard, according to Miller. The device allows mud and construction debris to fall off into a pit.

When it rained, “it was a river of mud,” Miller said.

There are no visible attempts to mitigate the mud, dirt and rocks. There are no hay bales or water/mud control devices typically seen at construction sites in Los Alamos County.

“Why is the County letting them get away with this?” Miller asked. “There is so much dirt that when the street sweeper comes it just covers the cars in my lot with thick dust. We have to take them to the car wash next door before customers can pick them up. I have had a small business in Los Alamos for a long time and believe it is not right for a business from out of town to be allowed to come in to our community and treat local businesses with such disrespect, and that even our own County personnel who should protect their local businesses do not back up local businesses when there is a problem.”

Miller noted that he is not against the new Smith’s store and is in fact glad to see it coming. Miller knows that being next door to it will benefit his business and property value. Miller says that his problems are with the construction company building the new Smith’s.

“I don’t usually complain and I’m not trying to hold up progress, but this just isn’t right,” Miller said. 

Broken Windshield

A Los Alamos citizen who works for an organization involved with the construction project, who wishes to remain anonymous, discussed with me a disturbing incident that occurred at the Trinity construction site. I will refer to this citizen as “Jones.”

Jones was driving past the Trinity development front construction entrance when a large dirt hauling truck pulled out in front of Jones’ car. Jones reports that there was debris all over the truck. The truck obviously hadn’t been washed down, reports Jones. Jones says that dirt and a large rock came off the truck and hit Jones’ car and caused a large six-inch diameter break in the windshield.

Jones got the license plate of the truck and called the County to determine who was responsible for the construction site and how to get information to file an insurance claim. Jones was told by the County to contact the R&O Construction Superintendent at the Trinity development construction office. Jones drove the damaged car to the on-site Construction Superintendent’s office to get insurance information in order to file a claim to repair the windshield damage.

After explaining to the superintendent what had occurred and requesting insurance information, Jones described the unpleasant conversation that ensued. Jones said the superindents told her the windshield damage was not his problem and that it was considered a normal road hazard. Jones told the superintendent that it wasn’t normal because his employee did not clean off the back of his truck and that was the cause of the damage. “The superintendent said I was trespassing, told me to leave and said he was calling the police,” Jones said.

Jones left the property without receiving insurance information. Jones reported that at the time there was a lot of “rock and debris all over the road” out on Trinity Drive as a result of the construction and truck movement. Jones also recalled there was no truck-out device or rock surface to remove debris from truck tires, only lots of mud and dirt at the site’s entrance.

Jones reported the incident to the police and said that after the police investigated the windshield incident, a truck-out device and a rock surface were added to the main entrance.

Jones was able to contact Scott Christianson, the owner of Santa Clara Construction – the site preparation subcontractor, and was able to get a claim settled for the damage through the subcontractor, who was very courteous and understanding about this issue, Jones said.

“I’m a really avid supporter of this project. What I feel is that the way they’re running this project and this guy in particular, is really bad PR for Kroger in Los Alamos,” Jones said. “I really feel like it is a bad representation for this and Kroger with our neighborhood.”

Haagen Dazs Sunday Shutdown

Daniel Sena owns and manages Daniel’s Café Haagen Dazs. Sena reported that his water was shut off a few weeks ago without notice as a result of the construction of the new Smith’s store.

“My water was shut off on two different days, putting us out of business on both days along with the dirt and poor communication,” Sena said.I called [the construction superintendent] asking why I was not notified of the water being shut off on that Sunday. He said it was the County’s responsibility. Mr. (James) Alarid and Mr. (John) Arrowsmith (Los Alamos DPU) said this was not the case.”

“I told [the superintendent] that besides having to close down for the day, the ice machine, which needs water, now does not operate properly nor did the yogurt machine, which is water cooled. [The superintendent] then said that I should have turned them off and that the coils should not have been affected. I then asked [the Superintendent] what ice cream stores he operates with this equipment and I didn’t realize he knows how to run my business. [The superintendent] said he knows about restaurant equipment and then the argument started from there with him hanging up on me after a few choice words.

Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities notes in a letter to Sena that “proper notification did not occur. The result of this lack of notification being inconvenience for all parties within the building [800 Trinity Dr.], unforeseen loss of business to Daniel’s Café and possible damage to equipment that requires a water source for operation. The subcontractor performing the waterline work in Trinity failed to notify the building occupants of 800 Trinity Dr. of the outage. The appropriate contact to discuss the consequences of the outage would be the General Contractor for the Kroger’s that is providing the construction for the Smith’s development: R and O Construction, Ogden, UT Attn: [Construction Superintendent.]

In the letter, the DPU also noted that it, “wishes to apologize again for the water being turned off at your place of business without adequate notice. We are reviewing our policy of requiring the contractor to be responsible for these types of notifications and are considering making a change so that the sole responsibility of ensuring that these types of notifications occur rests with the DPU and not the contractor.”

Visual Compaction Testing Allowed

Sam Gardner, owner of local construction development company SG Western, reported that the County accepted visual compaction test results from the Trinity Site construction project. Visual compaction tests have been unheard of in Los Alamos, according to Gardner. Gardner doesn’t believe visual testing is legal in the Los Alamos building code. Gardner says that local developers “would never get away with what is going on at that site.”  

After speaking to Gardner, I discussed the issues with Los Alamos County Building Inspector Chris Williams. Williams said that it is true that visual compaction tests have never before been accepted by Los Alamos County. Williams said, “no one has requested this type of compaction testing before.” Williams also noted that if another developer wants to use a new method they are free to propose it and the County will evaluate that method against industry and County standards.

Williams went into detail about why visual compaction testing was acceptable to the County for this project. Williams described how a very large amount of fill was required for the Trinity development in order to bring the property elevation up to grade. R&O contracted with Santa Clara Construction of Espanola to do the grading work. The fill was trucked in from off the hill and is not the typical type of fill normally seen in Los Alamos. Williams said there wasn’t enough fill in the County for the job, so Santa Clara Construction trucked it in.

This particular off-hill fill described as “oversized aggregate,” contains a lot of larger rocks and boulders that would make compaction test boring impossible, Williams said. Smith’s geotechnical survey firm contractor, Kleinfelder of Salt Lake City, proposed a visual compaction testing protocol in order to meet County soil compaction requirements. The geotechnical firm provided justification for this procedure using approved industry standards from ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, but now an international standards organization.)

The new compaction protocol (“Standards for oversize structural fill material: ASTM D1557-12”) calls for a specific method to be used to lay out the fill in “V” shaped rows. Specialized roll machines (sheepsfoot and vibratory drum rollers) with “spikes” are then used to spread the fill in order to guarantee proper compaction. The protocol calls for Kleinfelder to make periodic observations of the compaction procedures, including “hand probing the structural fill to check for soft zones.” The observations of proper compaction appear to serve as proof that the compaction was adequate for the intended use of the property.

It should be noted that Kleinfelder does not “undertake the guarantee of construction or production of a completed project conforming to the project plans and specifications.”  

Williams approved this new procedure saying that it meets the County requirements for compaction testing. Williams, when asked if sample testing of the compaction job would be done to verify compaction on the property, indicated that he did not anticipate any sample testing would be done.

Let’s hope the Kleinfelder and ASTM are right about this procedure providing proper soil compaction.

“Local developers are held to a much greater standard,” Gardner says. “My beef with the compaction testing isn’t so much what they are doing, as much as it is not at all consistent with what the County has allowed in the past with other contractors/developers. It gives this group a clear development advantage when they are given construction leniency (it amounts to a big cost saving for the project.)

“That kind of cost savings would not be realized by a local company held to stricter standards. The same thing applies to the lack of storm water pollution controls. If local guys are threatened with big fines for Storm Water Pollution Prevention (SWPP) violations and these guys march into town almost ignoring the regulations, it gives them another advantage.

“I guarantee you if (Clint) Miller, a local business owner for 20 years, was building an auto repair shop next to Smith’s and he wrecked their parking lot, ran a bunch of muddy construction equipment through their parking area, shut off their utilities multiple times, tore down their security fence and cut construction corners … his project would be shut down by the County, State and possibly OSHA and they would probably have a lawsuit against him. He might even wind up in that spanking new local jail.”

Work Continues

I was told by County Building Inspection Official Chris Williams that Smith’s has made unspecified changes in the way the construction site is being managed that should help smooth things out. It appears that there is now only one construction vehicle entrance and it does have what appears to be the proper “truck-out” device and rock structure.

If it rains or snows hard again, it looks like the mud problem for Clint Miller’s business could again be an issue.

I personally would expect the County to do a better job of minimizing the impacts of this construction on the community and especially neighboring businesses. Hopefully things will continue to improve between now and this summer, when the new Smith’s Marketplace is scheduled to open.

Despite the construction issues, most folks in Los Alamos that I have talked with are looking forward to the nicer, larger Smith’s Marketplace opening in our community.